United read­ies for Colum­bus, con­cur­rent fi­nales

The Washington Post Sunday - - WASHINGTONPOST.COM/SPORTS - BY S TEVEN GOFF steven.goff@wash­post.com

At around 7 p.m. Sun­day in Colum­bus, af­ter the postgame hand­shakes and fi­nal of­fi­ci­at­ing com­plaints, D.C. United Coach Ben Olsen will walk through the north­west tun­nel at Mapfre Sta­dium to­ward the locker room and be­gin re­ceiv­ing scores from the other East­ern Con­fer­ence matches.

The most im­por­tant re­sult will have played out in front of him against the home­town Colum­bus Crew, a match that could de­cide sec­ond place. But with sev­eral other games im­pact­ing United’s play­off plans—all are syn­chro­nizedand, in the­ory, will end within mo­ments of one an­other— Olsen will also have to in­quire about the scores in New York, Montreal and Philadel­phia.

To raise the drama of the fi­nal day of the reg­u­lar sea­son, ML S has bor­rowed an idea from the Pre­mier League by sched­ul­ing all 10 matches on the same day. Not as much is it at stake here as in England, where the 10 May fi­nales kick off si­mul­ta­ne­ously and of­ten de­ter­mine the league ti­tle, rel­e­ga­tion to the sec­ond divi­sion and slots in Euro­pean com­pe­ti­tion.

Nonethe­less, MLS has cer­tainly added some fizz to the reg­u­lar sea­son be­fore the play­offs start Wed­nes­day and Thurs­day.

“It’s in­ter­est­ing and the right thing to do,” Olsen said, adding that he would like to see all 10 matches start at the same time.

Be­cause of broadcasting win­dows, mul­ti­ple time zones and other is­sues, the league was not able to do that. But it did align the five matches pit­ting East­ern teams against one an­other at 5 p.m. and the five Western pair­ings at 7.

One late change was made: The New York Red Bulls game in Chicago was moved to 7 p.m. to go head to head with FC Dal­las vs. San Jose. The Red Bull sand Dal­las are tied in the race for the Sup­port­ers’ Shield tro­phy, awarded to the reg­u­lar sea­son points cham­pion.

While their match tran­spires, Olsen and his play­ers do not have to con­cern them­selves with other scores. It’s sim­ple: With a vic­tory, United would clinch sec­ond place, re­ceive a first-round bye and gain a week of prepa­ra­tion be­fore the first leg of the con­fer­ence semi­fi­nals next week­end.

But with a tie, D.C. (51 points) would need Toronto (49) to lose or draw against Montreal (48) to re­tain the No. 2 slot. A United de­feat would lift Colum­bus (50) into sec­ond place be­hind the Red Bulls (57) and drop D.C. to third or fourth.

The third- and fourth-place play­off teams will host one-off, first-round matches Wed­nes­day or Thurs­day against the No. 6 and 5 teams, re­spec­tively. Only the sixth slot in the East re­mains tech­ni­cally un­claimed, but New England (47) is all but a lock to out­last Or­lando (44).

The real drama rests in the West. Only Dal­las, Los An­ge­les and Van­cou­ver have se­cured post­sea­son pas­sage. Port­land, Seat­tle, Kansas City and San Jose, mean­while, are vy­ing for the last three po­si­tions.

Aside from play­off seed­ing, United (15-12-6)wants to con­tinue build­ing mo­men­tum. Since a sixgame win less rut, the club has won two straight: a come­back vic­tory over New York City FC and a 4-0 romp against last-place Chicago.

“We’ve got­ten our­selves out of this slump,” mid­fielder Chris Pon­tius said, “but it’s only been two games we’ve re­ally played well. We’ve got to keep this go­ing.”

What has helped the cause is a con­sis­tent lineup. Af­ter a sea­son of dif­fer­ent looks, forced by in­juries, sus­pen­sions and other is­sues, Olsen is likely to stick with the same group for the third con­sec­u­tive game.

The Crew (14-11-8), for its part, will play with­out two of the league’s pre­mier at­tack­ers: Kei Ka­mara, who is tied for the MLS scor­ing lead with 22 goals, and Fed­erico Higuain, an ex­quis­ite play­maker, must serve yel­low­card sus­pen­sions.

Still, his­tory is not on United’s side: It’s win­less in seven straight vis­its to cen­tral Ohio. Al­though D.C.’s sea­son away record is not hor­ri­ble (4-9-3), it has posted just two vic­to­ries in its past 13 road matches and scored a league-low nine goals in 16 games. The only time United scored mul­ti­ple goals away from RFK Sta­dium was six months ago in Van­cou­ver.

The good news? D.C. just so hap­pens to be the sec­ond-best de­fen­sive team on the road in MLS, hav­ing con­ceded just 19 goals.

“Our road form hasn’t been great,” Olsen said. But “be­lief isn’t an is­sue right now. . . . There is no short­age of mo­ti­va­tion.”

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